It’s a well known fact that the afterlife is run by Italians. Consequently, the menus of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise are rigorously Italian. I can attest to this truth because – in the middle of something else entirely – I found myself on a trip to the beyond, a foodie reprise of the journey Dante described in his Divina Commedia. Guided by the shades of authoritative denizens of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, I conducted an exhaustive survey of typical dishes in each of the three realms. I encountered many great cooks (I won’t reveal who’s where – I’m no tell-all like Dante), who graciously welcomed me as their equal.
I was met at the Gate of Hell by Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Elder, Rome’s indefatigable cataloguer of ingredients. He briefed me as we hurried through the neutral zone, prison of moral prevaricators and fence-sitters, neither friends of the good nor foes of the bad.
“I have visited every one of the nine circles of Hell,” he assured me, “researching my Infernal History. Food is eaten only in Circles 1 and 2.”
“Really?” I queried. “Aren’t those Limbo and Lust?”
“According to Dante,” Pliny replied. “But God tinkers with the Underworld all the time. As His angels never cease to remind us, Hell is forever but org charts come and go. Hell Circle 1 is still Limbo but was never as Dante described it. Limbo has long been the abode of poets and other creative writers – anyone who, wittingly or unwittingly, competes with God by conjuring the Word.
“Hell Circle 2 has been rebranded as Peccadillo Circle – the last stop of souls denied Purgatory but qualified for ‘comfy’ Hell, an innovation God is rather proud of.”
Intrigued, I quizzed him on the qualifications, but Pliny shrugged dismissively: “These are mysteries of death.”
All very well for you Pliny (I thought to myself), a creative writer nicely settled in Limbo. I could do with some tips on the final destination.
We came to the Acheron river, separating the neutral zone from Limbo. Charon, the bestial ferryman, growled his objection to transporting me, the only passenger who was still alive and kicking. Pliny silenced him with the stern warning, “Vuolsi così colà dove si puote ciò che si vuole,” (loosely translated, “It’s the will of those with the power to do whatever they want”).
“Charon thinks I mean the Holy Trinity, not the publisher and editors of Accenti magazine,” Pliny whispered, as we boarded the ferry.
We disembarked, stepping out of the murk and into Limbo, a delightful resort – villas spread throughout a large park on a lakeside hill, each with a garden and groves of olives and pomegranates, cypresses and persimmons, walnuts and peaches.
At Pliny’s favourite restaurant, the chef (a former fixture on the Food Network) recited the specialities of the house – five different versions of Bagna dell’Inferno (Hell’s Sauce), a variant of Bagna cauda (Hot sauce), the classic Piemontese sauce of salted anchovy, garlic, and olive oil. Three of the versions were hell-reddened: two, alla langarola (Langhe style) and all’occitana (Occitan style), with tomato; a third, alla canavese (Canavese style), with red wine. A fourth version, alla cebana (Ceva style), was infernally pungent with extra garlic; and the fifth, alla castiglionese (Castiglione Tinella style), was flamingly hot with chili pepper and black pepper.
“Wine!” exclaimed Pliny.
“Wine?” I wondered. “In Hell?”
“In Limbo, certainly. Writers can’t write without it. We have two wines: Inferno, a Nebbiolo from Valtellina; and Enfer d’Arvier, a Petit Rouge from Valle d’Aosta. The wineries send us cases of them in payment for the name rights. We’ll have the Inferno. It’s as wicked good as the food. A match made in Hell.”
After some back and forth, Pliny and I chose the Bagna dell’Inferno alla canavese and Bagna dell’Inferno alla cebana, each served in a mini-cauldron heated by a candle. We dipped our choice of vegetables – steamed cardoon ribs, green asparagus spears, turnip broccoletti, and strips of sweet red pepper – in one or other of the sauces, relishing the devilish play of flavours. Once we had smeared the last vegetable in the final drops of sauce, we succumbed to the temptation of grilled polenta dressed with Bagna dell’Inferno alla castiglionese – stimulating ballast with which to drain our bottle of Inferno, lingering over its black fruit and subterranean mineral finish.
Next day we visited Hell’s Peccadillo Circle, not as well lit as Limbo, nor the pitch black of serious Hell, but moodily crepuscular. The fare was a trio of Ligurian dishes: Moscardini all’Inferno, musky octopus hell-fired with chili pepper; Piccioni all’Inferno, pigeons locked in a hermetically sealed pot with butter and salt and cooked on top of a pan of boiling water; and Carciofi all’Inferno, artichokes dressed with olive oil, garlic, parsley, and spearmint, baked between two layers of embers. This was food worth dying for. The only flaw – sharpened by the meal’s excellence – was the lack of wine. A necessary deprivation, we reflected. Otherwise, Peccadillo Circlers would go totally unpunished for whatever sinlets they had committed while alive.
“So what do you think of dining in Hell?” Pliny enquired.
“Damned fine,” I replied.
I was about to extol the merits of the two meals when suddenly I was grabbed from above by a giant sparkler, the Archangel Michael. Gripping me tightly (more tightly than he needed to), he hauled me aloft. I must say that Air Archangel left a lot to be desired. No inflight entertainment; nary a snack; and dangling from a heavenly body taught me there is such a thing as too much leg room. Its only virtue was speed – in a flash we flew from Peccadillo Circle to the southernmost reaches of the South Pacific.
As abruptly as he had snatched me, Michael deposited me at the foot of a high mountain that soared above the surrounding ocean.
“Purgatory,” he snapped. “The gate’s up there.”
“That’s miles up,” I whined. “Couldn’t you…?”
But he left in an ostentatious firework display before I could finish. After an interminable climb, I reached the Gate of Purgatory where I was met by Ortensio Lando, Italy’s first geogastronomer. I was panting too much to chat but Ortensio was happy to treat me to a monologue on his culinary explorations in Italy and Purgatory, as we trudged upwards through the terraces of pride, envy, wrath, sloth, and avarice-prodigality.
“No food here – onward and upward,” Ortensio cajoled as we arrived at each new terrace.
At last we reached the terrace of gluttony. We pushed our way through a throng of hungry ghosts, tormented by an open-air restaurant packed to the gills with contented diners. We settled at the only empty table and Ortensio explained what we were witnessing.
“Our companions have done their penance for pride, envy, wrath, sloth, and avarice-prodigality, or are about to do so for lust (the next terrace up). Now they play their part in the penance of gluttons, who must suffer the agony of thwarted greed, of seeing and smelling food they hanker after but cannot have – worse, of watching and listening to others in gastronomic ecstasy.”
The menu led with Taranto’s Uova in Purgatorio (Eggs in Purgatory), assigned to Purgatory because the eggs are cooked to a cream without coagulating, so they are neither raw (Heaven) nor completely cooked (Hell). Then came two octopus dishes: Molise’s Polpi in Purgatorio alla molisana, cleansed by the fires of white pepper and chili pepper; and Abruzzo’s Polpi in Purgatorio alla sanvitese, purifyingly ablaze with chili pepper alone. The grand finale was Irsina’s Lambascion in Purgatorio, a Basilicatan dish in which tassel hyacinth bulbs are cooked in a covered pot with aged sausage and Pecorino cheese over low yet relentless heat for seemingly an eternity.
Fortified, we sadistically exhaled the fumes of great eating as we elbowed aside the ravenous gluttons. We climbed to the terrace of lust and then made the final ascent to the summit and the relocated Garden of Eden. There, Ortensio handed me off to San Francesco Caracciolo, patron saint of Italian cooks, who gently elevated me to Paradise.
I asked the Saint what they ate in Paradise.
“A few of the blessed sip Minestra del Paradiso (Paradise soup), fluffy cloudlets of egg and cheese floating in heavenly broth. Holy Istrians partake of Neve Paradiso (Paradise snow), mini-meringues in cream. The rest of us eat cake.”
“What kind of cake?”
“How’s it made?”
“It depends on the choir.” On cue, we were surrounded by five choirs of brightly smiling angels.
The Pavian and Mantovan choirs began their hymn: “Beat egg whites into a foam and butter and sugar into a cream…”
A horrified scream from a Sicilian angel interrupted them, and the Sicilian, Ligurian, and Venetian choirs burst into song: “Oh no, dearly beloved, beat egg whites into one foam and yolks and sugar into another,” they trilled, “there is no butter.”
“Well, just a little at the end,” came a surprise cadenza from the Venetians, much to the other choirs’ chagrin.
Unable to hold back any longer, all the choirs sang at once, carolling their rival proportions of flour, starch, egg, sugar, and butter in virtuoso counterpoint, a frisson of angelic tension in a line here, a beatific brittleness of notes there, their smiles ever more fixed.
“In my Father’s house are many kitchens,” muttered San Francesco.
“Yes,” I said, “but they only make cake.”
The moral of this story? If you have a post mortem dietary preference, conduct the rest of your life accordingly. My wife Carciofina, who adores artichokes and wishes to eat them forever, now worries about calibrating her sins to ensure she does.
Robert Prescott-Allen: GMO (gastronomically modified organism) – Italian belly in British body. Dinners: in 86 countries plus Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Quest: to describe and map 1001 local cuisines. Latest book (seeking a publisher): Magnifico! 220 Top Recipes You’ll Wish You’d Known Before, from Eastern Italy & Neighbouring Slovenia & Croatia.
“La Divina Cucina: A Guide to Food after Death” is the grand prize winner of the 2020 Accenti Writing Contest. For details on next year’s contest, click here.